The NYT Magazine profile of Freeman Dyson and his dissent position on climate change has provoked a lot of responses from the science blogosphere. John Conway over at Cosmic Variance:
I am not convinced at all that in 10 years we can “Repower America” and eliminate fossil fuels. And the rest of the world certainly won’t. That doesn’t mean we should not try, should not do research into new, non-carbon-based energy sources, expand our use of renewable, clean energy. We should! I am just very skeptical that it could be done even if it became the #1 national priority. It seems to me to violate physics itself, not to mention basic economic facts. Twenty years? Thirty? Eventually it will be clear to every one that we don’t really have a choice.
Mike Dunford at The Questionable Authority:
When the distinguished scientist in question is suggesting specific ideas, it's not always all that hard to do a quick back-of-the-envelope check to see just how feasible – or not – the idea is. That's certainly the case with Dyson's Magic Trees.
I'm referring, of course, to Dyson's idea that sometime in the next few decades, we will “almost certainly” have genetically engineered “carbon eating” trees within the next 50 years. These trees will suck up the excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and global warming (which Dyson thinks is an overstated problem to begin with) will be solved – once we've replaced 1/4 of the world's trees with the carbon-eating variety.
Just on the surface, that idea looks to be just plain nuts. It's the kind of thing that works well in sci-fi novels, not in reality. But let's give it a chance for just a minute or two, and take a (semi-)serious look at it.
We'll set aside the fact that we don't currently know how to create a biological process to convert carbon into a form that's not readily usable by other life forms. We'll also set aside the difficulties involved in getting numerous species of trees to accept some sort of genetic modification that will get them to use that process. We'll also ignore the logistical issues involved in getting that modification spread into 25% of the trees living on the planet.
Instead, let's just look at how much inert carbon these trees will have to somehow output.
Chris Mooney over at The Intersection:
Dawidoff’s climate science illiteracy emerges again in this terrible passage, in which he pits Dyson’s views against those of an environmental scientist:
Science is not a matter of opinion; it is a question of data. Climate change is an issue for which Dyson is asking for more evidence, and leading climate scientists are replying by saying if we wait for sufficient proof to satisfy you, it may be too late. That is the position of a more moderate expert on climate change, William Chameides, dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences at Duke University, who says, “I don’t think it’s time to panic,” but contends that, because of global warming, “more sea-level rise is inevitable and will displace millions; melting high-altitude glaciers will threaten the food supplies for perhaps a billion or more; and ocean acidification could undermine the food supply of another billion or so.” Dyson strongly disagrees with each of these points, and there follows, as you move back and forth between the two positions, claims and counterclaims, a dense thicket of mitigating scientific indicators that all have the timbre of truth and the ring of potential plausibility. One of Dyson’s more significant surmises is that a warming climate could be forestalling a new ice age. Is he wrong? No one can say for sure.
There are many dumb things here, but which sentence most betrays that the reporter is out of his depth? To me it’s this one: Dyson strongly disagrees with each of these points, and there follows, as you move back and forth between the two positions, claims and counterclaims, a dense thicket of mitigating scientific indicators that all have the timbre of truth and the ring of potential plausibility. Yup, that’s right: If you don’t know anything about a given area, claims and counterclaims have the tendency to sound equally true. This is why misinformation is effective–especially on some journalists.